By Charlie Nardozzi
One of my end-of-the-year rituals is to sit down with seed and plant catalogs and place my order for the next year. It’s a fun project right after all the hustle and bustle of the holidays. I’m a bit old fashioned, so I like to spread out the printed seed and plant catalogs on the floor and leaf through each one, selecting new varieties to try and ordering new packets of tried-and-true varieties. Of course, I realize most seed and plant catalogs are also on-line (some without even a printed catalog anymore), so after my first pass through the print catalogs, I start perusing the on-line versions. Often there will be more information about the variety on-line and sometimes other photos. One word of caution, though — watch the photos. Pictures can make a fruit or vegetable look larger, more beautiful and more colorful that it really is. It’s really eye candy!
While each gardener probably has his or her own system for ordering seeds and plants, I thought it would be helpful to highlight some important points about buying vegetable seeds, fruit trees, and berry bushes. Hopefully these ideas will ring true for you and help you not over-order or order the wrong variety for your climate. Feel free to email me with any other tips you might have, including a favorite catalog company.
Ordering Vegetable Seeds
You certainly can wait until spring and buy your vegetable and herb seeds from the local garden center. Many have a great selection of varieties from a number of different seed companies. Or if you’re only growing a small garden, buy transplants instead.
However, buying seeds from a catalog is fun and gives you several advantages. There is a wider selection of varieties available when ordering seed through catalogs. Do you want an orange-colored eggplant or golden colored snow pea? Go to the seed catalogs. If you’re looking for a particular variety with disease resistance, colorful fruits, unusual growth habits, or special flavor, you’re more likely to find it in a catalog. For gardeners with lots of space and growing large gardens, buying seeds via a catalog is often cheaper, too. You can shop around for the best price for that variety, and often when buying it in larger quantities, you can get a discount. But before buying everything in sight, inventory what you have left from last year. If stored properly, those lettuce, tomato and pepper seeds in opened packets can still germinate and grow fine.
There are a few things to keep in mind when buying seeds from a catalog. If you have a garden that is strictly organic, biodynamic, or you only grow heirlooms, you may want to look for seed companies specializing in those types of varieties. While many companies now offer organic seeds and heirloom varieties, bio-dynamically raised seed is a little harder to find. Also, look for a seed company that has signed the Safe Seed Pledge. This is a pledge that the seed company will not knowingly buy or sell any seed variety that has been genetically modified.
While shopping around for the best price for your specific variety is easy to do on-line, consider supporting regional seed companies. It’s not just about supporting smaller seed companies in your geographic area. Many regional seed companies will have trial grounds and grow out new varieties before offering them to their customers. Since you are in the same geographic area, chances are if the variety grows well in their trails, it should grow well in your garden. This is particularly true with heirloom varieties. Many heirlooms were grown in specific regions of the country for generations. Because they are regionally adapted, they may not grow well for you if you don’t live in that region. Let the seed company trial it, and maybe even save the seed a few years, to develop a version that is adapted to your climate.
Check out seed companies that offer smaller sized packets of seed as well. These are great for trying new varieties. They are less expensive and you only get a few seeds to fit in your garden.
Finally, consider ordering seeds from only a few companies. This may save you money in shipping costs.
Ordering Fruit Trees & Berries
Much of the same thinking for ordering vegetable seeds applies to ordering fruit trees and berry bushes. You’ll get a broader variety ordering through the mail and it will be less expensive, especially if you’re planting a small orchard or large berry patch. If you just need a few bushes or trees, it’s simpler to shop at your local garden center.
Pay particularly close attention to hardiness zones for the varieties you are choosing. Nurseries can sometimes be generous with rating the cold hardiness of plants. I like to err on the conservative side. If the catalog says a fruit tree is hardy to USDA zone 5, check out other sources on the Internet to verify that zone designation. Also, look for varieties that have regional adaptations. Find out what diseases are prevalent in your area. Some varieties are disease resistant, which may be important in your area of the country. I’m growing pears and I know in the Northeast fire blight disease is a big problem, so I grow resistant varieties.
Order early. Many times nurseries run out of specialty varieties of fruit trees or berry bushes. You can order in January and the nurseries won’t ship the bare root stock until the last frost date for your region, so there’s no need to worry you’ll get your plants too soon. Many nurseries stop shipping once trees and bushes break bud, so you may have to wait until the fall bare root shipping season if you don’t order in time in the spring.
If you are in a hurry for fruit, select larger-sized versions of your variety of choice. It’s more expensive to buy older trees, but they will fruit sooner.
Look for a guarantee. Most fruit tree and berry nurseries will offer a one-year guarantee with their plants. Check out garden watchdog sites and gardening forums to make sure that a company honors its guarantees and is a good one to work with. Gardeners are usually more than willing to share their experiences about plant companies.
Keep the trees growing strong each year by applying a balanced fertilizer each spring and keeping the soil mulched and watered.